Bill Harvey was a left-handed pitcher and outfielder who played parts of up to 21 years in the Negro Leagues, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Though unimposing both physically (5-feet-8, 175 pounds) and statistically (31-52, 5.68 ERA in 140 official Negro League games), Harvey had a long and colorful career that was not without its share of memorable moments. Known as “a dapper dresser and an acknowledged ladies’ man who was frequently fined for violating curfew,”1 he was also a pretty fair hitter, and once hit three home runs in a game at Yankee Stadium.2
David William Harvey was born on March 23, 1908, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. At the time of the 1910 census, his parents, Lewis and Sarah Harvey, were living in the home of her parents, Price and Jennie Donaldson. The Donaldsons were farmers; Lewis Harvey was listed as a laborer who did street work. Two of Sarah’s sisters, both laundresses for private families, lived there as well.
After “learning baseball on the sandlots of Mississippi and Memphis, Harvey had his first taste of professional ball with the Memphis Red Sox … when they were in the Negro Southern League.”3 Though some sources claim he may have debuted as early as 1926, no reliable records exist for the NSL prior to 1932. On April 16 of that year, in Memphis, Harvey pitched a six-hit, 3-0 shutout for the Red Sox against Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants that completed a sweep of a three-game exhibition series between the two teams.4 In May Harvey garnered two more wins, a 14-6 triumph over the Cleveland Cubs and a 5-4 victory over the Nashville Elite Giants in which “he won his own game … when he clouted a home run with two runners on bases in the seventh inning.”5 By the end of the season Harvey had posted a 3-2 record with Memphis and also was 0-1 in two appearances for the Monroe Monarchs, another member team of the NSL.
Harvey opened the 1933 season with Memphis and developed into a frontline hurler as the Red Sox captured the first-half championship in the NSL.6 Harvey had already become so well-known that he received a nickname. The July 1, 1933, Chicago Defender reported that “Son Harvey showed Howard from across the river that it is very hard to secure enough hits while in the Red Sox park to take a victory from him” as it gave an account of Memphis’s three-game sweep of Little Rock; Harvey won the middle game by a 4-1 score.7 In mid-July Harvey pitched a no-hitter in the abbreviated (six-inning) second game of a doubleheader against Nashville. Not only did he baffle the opposition hitters, but it was his bat that drove in the only run in the 1-0 triumph. According to a news account of the game, in the bottom of the sixth and final inning, Memphis second baseman Marlin Carter “beat out a hit to the infield, [left fielder Harvey] Peterson laced a two-bagger to right field, Carter going to third; on the first ball pitched, Harvey laid down a perfect bunt and Carter crossed the plate with the only run needed for victory.”8
Harvey’s pitching gained notice and, later in the season, he debuted in the much stronger and more prominent Negro National League (NNL)– first, briefly, with Bingo DeMoss’s Cleveland Giants, and then with the soon-to-be legendary Pittsburgh Crawfords. Early in his career Harvey developed a reputation both for wildness and for his willingness to knock a batter down. Among his repertoire of pitches was one that he called a “needleball.” The needleball created what he called an “overload” which only Harvey could sense, and which he could somehow use to his advantage.9 That advantage was not yet apparent in his short stint in the NNL in 1933, as he posted a 23.63 ERA in 2 2/3 innings with Cleveland and a 9.63 ERA in 5 2/3 innings with Pittsburgh.
Fortunately for the 1933 Crawfords, they did not require any contribution from Harvey to win the second half of the NNL’s split-season format. The club featured five future Hall of Famers: catcher Josh Gibson, center fielder Cool Papa Bell, third baseman Judy Johnson, ace right-hander Satchel Paige, and manager-infielder Oscar Charleston. With a roster like that, it is no wonder that Harvey played sporadically for two years, unable to establish a full-time spot for himself until 1935. Charleston did whatever he could to help his young southpaw survive against some of the best hitters in the world. “Charleston could take a ball in his hands and loosen the cover. If you wanted to throw a cut ball, you just gave it to him,” said Harvey years later.10
Harvey began the 1934 season back in Memphis; however, neither he nor the team fared as well as in the previous season. This is not to say that there were no highlights. On May 26, Harvey’s arm and bat again served him well in a 5-3 victory over the Birmingham Black Barons. It was reported that “Bill Harvey, durable Red Sox hurler, had a swell day Saturday afternoon. … On the mound he limited the invaders to six hits and at bat the lefthander got four hits out of four times up, knocked in a couple of runs and crossed the plate twice himself.”11 The very next day wasn’t too shabby either: Harvey entered the nightcap of a doubleheader in relief and earned another win. Once more Harvey helped his own cause as he went 1-for-2 at the plate and scored a run in Memphis’s seven-inning, 5-4 triumph.12
On June 3 Harvey struck out 12 Monroe Monarchs but his effort was not enough in a tough 8-7 loss in the first game of a doubleheader; Monroe also captured the second game, 4-2, as the Red Sox hit a rough patch in their season. Harvey was also inconsistent, as is evidenced by the report of a series that Memphis played against the 24th Infantry team from Fort Benning, Georgia. The press noted, “Bill Harvey fanned eight of the infantry boys in the nightcap [a 5-1 Memphis victory] even though he was somewhat careless in his mound work.”13
Inconsistent or not, Harvey was a lefty, and southpaws have always been in demand in baseball. Thus, Harvey made his return to Pittsburgh for the 1935 season. The 1935 Crawfords are considered by many to be the greatest Negro League team ever assembled. Harvey’s role was as a spot starter and long reliever, and he posted a 2-3 record with a 4.18 ERA in 51⅔ innings over 12 appearances (5 starts). He collected two hits as a relief pitcher in a 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Stars on May 27, then did so again as the starting pitcher on June 29 when he defeated the Newark Dodgers.
Harvey contributed less to the team’s incredible victory on August 24 at Cole’s Park in Chicago. He was hit hard by the Chicago American Giants and was no longer in the game when the Crawfords rallied from a 7-4 deficit in the ninth inning to tie the score. Pittsburgh went on to win the game in the 19th inning.
Four weeks later, on September 23, manager Charleston chose Harvey to start the seventh game of the NNL championship series against the New York Cubans, at Parkside Park in Philadelphia. The clincher was truly a team effort as Harvey pitched effectively, Charleston and Gibson each homered, right-hander Roosevelt Davis extinguished a New York rally in the ninth, and the Crawfords became the champions of the Negro National League.
However, the luster of that 1935 championship quickly wore off. The Crawfords’ owner, influential black businessman/racketeer/philanthropist Gus Greenlee, found himself in need of cash in 1936 to pay off a hit on a heavily played number in his gambling racket.14 The ballpark he had built, Greenlee Field, was badly in need of maintenance (and ultimately was seized by the City of Pittsburgh to make way for a housing project).15 Harvey stuck with the Crawfords through all this turmoil, and posted a 3-4 record in 1936 for a Crawfords team that won a second consecutive NNL championship, though this time by virtue of having the league’s best record rather than via a championship series.
Harvey stuck with the Crawfords, though he continued to be used sparingly. Even after Greenlee saw a mass defection of his players to the Dominican Republic in 1937, Harvey’s role on the team still did not expand. In fact, an early May news article stated, “(Pitcher Ernest ‘Spoon’ Carter) and Harvey, serving their third year in Crawfords’ uniforms, will be forced to give better performances if they expect to remain in fast company.”16 Harvey struggled to a 1-3 record and 6.00 ERA in 1937, and went 3-3 with a 5.40 ERA in 1938; he pitched slightly more than 40 innings for the Crawfords in both campaigns. By 1938, the club was struggling both on the field and at the gate, with Charleston as its only remaining future Hall of Famer, and Greenlee’s financial situation had become so bad that he had no choice but to sell the team. Under a new ownership team led by Hank Rigney, the Crawfords moved west to Toledo, Ohio, for the 1939 season.
Initially, Harvey did not rejoin the Crawfords in their new city. Instead, he began the early part of the year with the Baltimore Elite Giants. He earned the save for Baltimore on April 10 when he tossed three scoreless innings to finish off a wild 11-10 win. After Harvey took over, the Atlanta Black Crackers batters, who “had been murdering the ball, were looking very silly at the plate, driving weak rollers back at (Harvey), producing lazy infield popups, or actually cutting arcs into just so much gentle air as third strikes breezed past,” according to “Melancholy” Jones of the Atlanta Daily World.17
Soon, Harvey sojourned to Toledo, where he rejoined the Crawfords. He made only five starts for the team, which moved from the NNL to the Negro American League (NAL) in midseason, and put up a 0-1 record, and he also started a few games in left field. The Crawfords played to a 4-5-1 record in the NNL and an 8-11-1 mark in the NAL in what can best be described as a lost season.
In the winter of 1939 Harvey signed on to pitch in the California Winter League, the only organized league in which teams of Negro Leaguers could compete against teams composed of white major leaguers and minor leaguers. At Hollywood Stadium, Harvey started a game opposite Cleveland Indians fireballer Bob Feller, the American League’s top pitcher that year. Harvey hit a triple and dueled Feller to a 2-2 tie into the late innings. Harvey’s teammates broke through against Feller’s relievers, and Harvey was credited with the win.18
In the spring of 1940 Harvey’s best offer came from Los Industriales de Monterrey, so the 32-year-old headed south of the border to the Mexican League. Battling a sore arm for much of 1940, he went 7-9 with a 4.64 ERA between Monterrey, for which team he received all of his pitching decisions, and Los Alijadores de Tampico. The hot, dry air and high elevations made the league a notoriously tough one for pitchers. When Harvey registered for the World War II draft in October that year, he listed his occupation as “Unemployed Baseball Player Tampico [sic] Mex Team,” perhaps indicating that his prospects of returning to the Mexican League seemed dim after his performance in 1940.
Return he did, however. Harvey pitched for Tampico in 1941, but with his arm still ailing, he posted a 2-7 record with a 7.60 ERA, and issued 44 walks in 58 innings. Nevertheless, Harvey, like many other veteran Negro Leaguers of the era, enjoyed playing in Mexico. Not only did they earn more money than they could in the States but, even more importantly, they did not have to live like second-class citizens because of their color. Quite the contrary, the players were treated like kings. “We live in the best hotels, we eat in the best restaurants, and go anyplace we care to. We are heroes here,” observed Hall of Famer Willie Wells, who faced Harvey as a member of Los Azules de Veracruz.19
Harvey’s struggles in Mexico did not deter the Elite Giants from bringing him back to Baltimore for the 1942 season. The Elites also lured pitcher Tom Glover and hard-hitting outfielder Burnis “Wild Bill” Wright out of the Mexican League that year, and they were poised to contend for the pennant after having finished second to the Homestead Grays the year before. On April 12, during the spring exhibition season, Harvey took part in his second career no-hitter, though this one was a combined effort rather than a solo job. The New York Amsterdam News reported on the no-no:
“A seven-inning, no hit, no run performance highlighted the twin victory the Baltimore Elite Giants scored over the Cuban stars at Pelican Stadium [in New Orleans], April 12. The scores were 4-0 and 4-3.
“Two lefthanders, Jonas Gaines and Bill Harvey, shared the 4-0 triumph. Gaines went four innings, Harvey three …”20
Harvey pitched well enough that he made the Elite Giants’ regular-season roster, and he entered Baltimore’s Opening Day game in relief in the top of the 10th inning. On May 10, in front of a crowd of 5,500, the Elite Giants defeated the Philadelphia Stars, 9-8, in their home opener at Bugle Field. Catcher Roy Campanella, the future Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer, hit a bases-loaded single in the 10th inning that “produced the winning tally for Tom Wilson’s hirelings” as “Bill Harvey hurled the final inning for the Elites and was rewarded with the winning pitcher honors.”21
The Elite Giants caught fire in the second half of the season, but the Grays, who had already won the first half, kept pace with them. Going into their Labor Day doubleheader at Philadelphia, the Elite Giants needed a sweep of the Stars and a loss by the Grays in order to win the second half and the right to play the Grays for the championship. Harvey started the first game of that doubleheader and rose to the occasion as he tossed a masterful one-hit shutout. But the Grays outslugged the Newark Eagles, 14-12, to clinch their third straight Negro National League championship.22
In 1943 Harvey’s ERA+ of 109 showed him to be a roughly league-average pitcher in spite of his dismal 2-11 record for a Baltimore team that finished in fifth place in the NNL with an 18-26-3 league record (25-42-3 overall). As usual, Harvey also managed to get a few starts in the outfield and at first base, and he batted .231 with one home run. The reason for the Elite Giants’ rapid decline was attrition. In late April, it was reported that “[t]he Baltimore Elite Giants began preparations for the coming Negro National League camping here at Bugle field, with a war-time squad of six players, and a new manager in the person of George ‘Tubby’ Scales.”23 Campanella, shortstop Pee Wee Butts, and outfielder Bill Wright had defected to the Mexican League while second baseman Sammy Hughes and pitcher Bill Barnes had been lost to military service. In a down season, one highlight for Harvey was his seven-inning, one-hit, 2-0 shutout of the Grays on June 4 at Bugle Field.24 On August 1 Harvey made his only appearance in the annual East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. He entered in the sixth inning, tossed a scoreless frame for the East team in a 2-1 loss, and then was relieved by Hall of Famer Leon Day, who remained a close friend of Harvey’s into old age.25
In 1944 Baltimore improved its record to 34-36 in the NNL (41-39 overall), but that was still only good enough for a fourth-place finish. Harvey had a 1-4 record with an inflated 7.24 ERA. On September 2, 1944, it was reported that Harvey was among the list of players who had been signed by Gus Greenlee for his second incarnation of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. This new Crawfords team competed in the United States League in 1945 and 1946. Greenlee helped to found the league to compete against the established NNL and NAL, and he was up to his old tricks of raiding other teams for talent. According to the news article, “Greenlee, who figures this winter to take his team to Cuba or South America for a full season of Winter League competition, will be one up on his competitors since he is giving his men year-round employment at high salary.”26
Greenlee apparently took his new Crawfords to Mexico for Winter League play – rather than to Cuba as had been anticipated – because that is where the FBI eventually tracked Harvey down after he had been drafted into the Army and had not reported for service. The FBI escorted him back to the United States, and Harvey fulfilled his duty to his country.27 He joined the Army on December 1, 1944, and served through August 13, 1945, when he was given a medical discharge. Since Harvey was stationed at Fort George G. Meade in the Baltimore area, he was still able to play for the Elite Giants at times during his enlistment, and he pitched to a 2-0 record with a 2.55 ERA in 17⅔ innings in three appearances.
By this time, Harvey had settled down enough to marry. His wife, Charlotte Cager, was a 1930 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, the only high school in the city open to black students at that time.28 She recalled the experience of attending Negro League ballgames in Baltimore to watch her husband: “It was a nice crowd. That is, there were very few arguments among the fans. I would get a ride with someone, or take the old number 27 bus line. Vernon Green [owner of the Elite Giants] always had my ticket, which I think cost 25 cents, in an envelope, for a box seat right behind home plate.”29
When Harvey attended spring training with the Elite Giants in 1946, it was noted that he had “established himself as something of a Peck’s Bad Boy” – an early twentieth-century term for a prankster or rule-breaker – “and will have to mend his ways greatly if he hopes to stick.”30 For whatever reason, he failed to stick with Baltimore that spring. A brief appearance with the New York Black Yankees later in 1946 was Harvey’s last hurrah as a professional ballplayer. His reputation for wildness and willingness to knock a batter down had not diminished over the decades.
At a Negro Leagues reunion in Kentucky in 1981, Harvey was kidded by Ted Page, whose arm Harvey had broken with a pitched ball in 1935. It was the first time the two men had seen each other in more than 40 years. It was also remembered that Harvey had broken two of Vic Harris’s ribs in a game against the Crawfords’ crosstown rivals, the Grays.31
Bill and Charlotte Harvey lived the rest of their lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in West Baltimore, not far from Leon Day’s house. “Harvey is older than a New Guinea coconut tree,” said Day in 1987. “And they have to be a hundred years old before they bear coconuts!”32
Bill Harvey died in his adopted hometown of Baltimore on March 3, 1989, a few weeks shy of his 81st birthday, and was buried in Maryland National Memorial Park in Laurel.
Thanks to Frederick C. Bush, co-editor of this volume, for providing genealogical research as well as numerous articles about Bill Harvey’s early years with Memphis, his later years with Baltimore, and his extremely brief stint with the second iteration of Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted the following:
Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History (Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House, 2001).
Ancestry.com, used to determine Harvey’s genealogy and for his military draft and enlistment records.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistical data and team records were taken from the Seamheads Negro League Player Database: seamheads.com/NegroLgs/player.php?playerID=harve01bil
1 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball League (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), 367. The question of how many years Harvey played revolves around the 1926-31 seasons. Riley states that he played those seasons, but there has been no confirmation of that in other sources.
2 Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 366.
3 Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 366.
4 “Memphis Tops Jim Brown’s Team, 5 to 0,” Chicago Defender, April 23, 1932: 8; “Memphis Red Sox and Birmingham Barons Open Today,” Atlanta Daily World, April 21, 1932: 5.
5 “Memphis Takes 3 Straight from Cleveland,” Chicago Defender, May 21, 1932: 9; “Memphis Drops Nashville from League Lead; Wins Three Games,” Chicago Defender, May 28, 1932: 9.
7 “Memphis Wins Three in Arkansas/Sox Increase Lead in Southern Loop,” Chicago Defender, July 1, 1933: 9.
8 “Harvey in No-Hit No-Run Win,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 15, 1933: 15.
9 Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 367.
10 Bruce Anderson, “Time Worth Remembering,” Sports Illustrated, July 6, 1981: 51-52.
11 “Memphis Cops Birmingham Series/Harvey Stars for Victorious Nine,” Chicago Defender, June 2, 1934: 15.
12 “Memphis Cops Birmingham Series.”
13 “Memphis Red Sox Whip the Ft. Benning 9,” Chicago Defender, June16, 1934: 17.
14 Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 339.
15 See Jeb Stewart, “Greenlee Field,” in the present volume.
16 “Crawfords Send Out SOS and Get Brewer,” Chicago Defender, May 1, 1937: 14.
17 “Melancholy” Jones, “Black Crax Again Nosed Out by Baltimore, 11-10,” Atlanta Daily World, April 11, 1939: 5.
18 William F. McNeil, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2002), 181.
19 James A. Riley, Dandy, Day, and the Devil (Cocoa, Florida: TK Publishers, 1987), 109.
20 “Elites Score No Hit-Run Win/Cubans Lose Exhibitions, 4-0 and 4-3,” New York Amsterdam News, April 25, 1942: 12.
21 “Campanella’s Homer Beats Phillies, 9 to 8,” Chicago Defender, May 16, 1942: 20.
22 David E. Hubler and Joshua H. Drazen, The Nats and the Grays: How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 82.
23 Dick Powell, “Baltimore Gets Ready/Loss of Snow, Butts, and Campanella Hurts,” Chicago Defender, April 24, 1943: 21.
24 “Baltimore Wins Couple from Grays,” Chicago Defender, June 5, 1943: 20.
25 Riley, Dandy, Day, and the Devil, 109.
26 “Greenlee Raids Black Yanks in War on NNL/Takes Players from Grays, Elites, Chicago for Crawfords; Will Play in Cuba Winter Loop,” New York Amsterdam News, September 2, 1944: 6.
27 Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia, 367.
28 “National Register Information System,” National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, March 13, 2009.
29 Bob Luke, The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 31.
30 “Elite Pitching Is No Problem; 11 Seek Berths,” New York Amsterdam News, April 13, 1946: 12.
31 Anderson, 51.
32 Riley, Dandy, Day, and the Devil, 57.